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The School of Stanley


LONG BEFORE THE COMMUNICATIONS revolution shrank the globe, Stanley Marcus brought the world to Dallas. He displayed it beautifully in his store for all to touch, see and most definitely buy. One of the great retail captains of the twentieth century, Marcus possesses, say those who worked with him, a unique blend of talent, taste, creativity, superb intelligence, education and good breeding. He expresses himself articulately, on paper and in person. He motivates department managers and clerks right out of their seats and down to their cash registers. He demands perfection and hard work, no less from anyone than himself. He is fair and civil to his employees. And he can sell anything.

“Absolutely anything,” says Chuck Kehoe, owner of New Mexico-based Cookworks and once a fur-buyer for Mr. Stanley (as he’s known to friends). “He had an incredible mind and he knew, in every department, exactly what wasn’t selling. He used his vast storehouse of knowledge to help get those items sold.”

Like the time in 1968 when a well-known Midland oilman over-partied one weekend in Dallas. His wife was calling all over town looking for him. Word got back to Neiman’s (she likely called The Store) and the philandering hubby knew he was in hot water. Maybe a little gift for the missus from Neiman Marcus would get her smiling again?

Just so happened, Mr. Stanley knew his fur department had the perfect repentance gift: a stunning, expensive, luxurious Black Willow Mink coat. Black Willow was an exclusive breed of mink; this fur carried a $75,000 price tag that had been hanging on it for quite a long time. Just like that, Mr. Stanley had a buyer.

A master of promotion, Marcus took the month of Halloween and harvests and turned it into one of the leading Dallas social events of the year-Fortnight. October can be a lousy sales month tor retail merchants: they’ve just wrapped up back-to-school sales and Christmas spending is still a month or two away. In Dallas, October is so hot few people want to start buying warm clothes anyway. So Stanley Marcus created a two-week event that brought movie stars like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Swanson and Dinah Shore, and famous designers like Coco Chanel riding in a convertible down Main Street. It helped make once-bleak October one of the store’s most profitable months.

“One year he bought these imperial Chinese robes for an oriental Fortnight,” says Chuck Kehoe. “I have been in countless Dallas homes where those red Chinese robes have been framed and are still hanging on the wall.”

But Stanley Marcus brought to Dallas more than worldly treasures, movie stars, designer labels and furs. He created an institution where service was paramount, customers’ expectations were exceeded and good taste prevailed over all. In the process, he recruited a storehouse of human raw material: the students of the School of Stanley. With Mr. Stanley’s guidance, hundreds of people got much more than a paycheck and benefits by working at Neiman Marcus. Some of the city’s-and the country’s-most dynamic men and women were inspired by Stanley Marcus and his philosophy. He had a knack for finding incredibly bright, promising young people who could go far under his tutelage if they worked very hard.

What of those who didn’t?

“If you didn’t meet up to his standards, you were not around for long,” says Nancy Brinker, a graduate of the School of Stanley.

The Ohio native had always wanted to live in Texas. She was recruited by Neiman’s after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1968. Now a prominent Dallas social mover and founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Brinker says her five-year employment at Neiman’s was like getting a Ph.D. in retailing, marketing and public relations.

“I learned presentation from him, that ’no’ means ’maybe’ and to never, ever stop selling,” she says. “And the customer is always right.”

One such customer was a rather wellknown woman who swore she was a size eight. In reality, she was more like a size 16. Whenever this celebrity came to the boutique, Brinker discreetly switched size tags on all the clothes, making the 16s size eights.

“She knew, but she loved it that I was trying so hard to please her.” says Brinker.

Mr. Stanley, says Brinker, fanned the flames of an individ ual’s creativity. He made surprise inspection visits and asked lots of questions; you had to be on your toes. Yet he also included buyers and trainees at special dinners in his home. where everyone mingled with his family and was made to feel like they were part of it. If you wanted to grow, Neiman’s was your garden.

Brinker learned from Marcus, she says, to first give, then receive; to entertain the customer as you sell and always exceed the presentation-lessons that sustained her when she built the Komen Foundation.

“Stanley Marcus is a true artisan of longevity,” says Brinker, “with endless curiosity. He always stood for quality. And he never, ever stops learning.”

Or asking questions.

Lester Melnick worked as a buyer for Neiman Marcus. One day he found, through his New York contacts, a splendid gray flannel women’s suit. Best of all, it was treated with an early version of Scotchguard and was supposedly guaranteed to repel any stain.

“Really. Any stain?” asked Mr. Stanley. He proceeded to break open an ink pen and pour the ink over the gray fabric. “Now, let’s try to clean it,” he said.

Well, they couldn’t. Neiman Marcus never did carry that suit or fabric.

“His credibility, Neiman’s credibility, had to be pluperfect,” says Melnick, who went on to own his own stores. “And he was always there, just as he wanted us to always be there.”

On busy days, Mr. Stanley would make sure his buyers weren’t sitting in their offices catching up on paperwork but out on the floor, selling. As was Stanley himself. On Melnick’s first day of work as a $75 per week floorwalker, a man walked over and welcomed him to the store. Then the same man bent over and picked a piece of lint up off the floor. Melnick asked a coworker, “Who is that guy?” That, they told him. was Mr. Stanley.

Marcus taught his students that to stand out against the competition, you had to be just a little different. Once, he desperately wanted to sell a certain Italian coat at Neiman’s but couldn’t because a competitor store, Kahn’s, had (he exclusive on it. Stanley told Melnick to find a scarf. And so Neiman’s displayed and sold the same coat with a coordinating scarf for $156, six dollars more than the same coat without the scarf sold for at Kahn’s.

He may have been tough on his competitors, but Mr. Stanley always insisted on encouraging compétition among other businesses. He bought ads in both the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times Herald.

“Sometimes he sacrificed business to support competition,” says Melnick. “He made sure we flew on all the airlines because he wanted to be fair to everyone.”

A tough taskmaster, but at the Store he was also fair to his employees. Stanley Marcus urged them to utilize creativity even if that meant making mistakes. But not too many.

Chuck Kehoe, a Wisconsin native, started in Neiman’s toy department and worked his way up to fur buyer during the ’70s. Maybe it was all the snow he had lived with up north that made him purchase hundreds Stanley shushed away the clerk.

“I love it,” cood the woman. “I’ll take it.”

He asked her how she planned to take care of “it”-a Neiman’s-nice method of asking who’s going to pay the bill.

“Just charge it to my boyfriend,” said the customer, leaving the store with her new mink coat.

Stanley asked the clerk who the boyfriend was.

“I don’t know,” said the salesclerk.”I don’t even know who she is.”

Stanley Marcus had just let fifty thousand dollars walk out the door.

He went to his office to think: Who did he know in town who might send their lovely girlfriend into Neiman Marcus to buy a mink coat? Six names came to mind; he sent each of them a statement.

Four of them sent checks to Stanley Marcus.

There were, say some protégés, also plenty of henchman to do Stanley’s dirty work. One day a customer came into Mr. Stanley’s office complaining and demanding a refund. He was being slightly unreasonable. Stanley sent him to his financial officer, assuring the irate man he would be well taken care of.

After the customer left his office, Stanley called the CFO: “A man is coming to see you. Don’t give him anything.”

Not all employees were successes who went on toeven-greener pastures after leaving Neiman’s. One buyer, says Leslie, stole the store blind. For the most part, though, Marcus hired well and surrounded himself with savvy people. No one resented that Mr. Stanley ran the show, not even his brothers. Employees were paid fairly and received lovely gifts at Christmas.

’’My wife was quite ill during one of her pregnancies,” says Leslie. “Mr. Stanley offered to fly her to France if that would help her.”

William Williams, president and CEO of Oregon-based Harry & David, recalls that Stanley was quick to recognize talent and encourage it.

“He taught me to distinguish between the good, better and the best,” says Williams. “’I once asked him what it takes to be a great retailer; curiosity, broad experiences, liking people and good insight is what he told me.”

No one goes to school to be a retailer, says Williams, but working under Stanley Marcus was the next best thing. During his years at The Store and in retirement, he could teach volumes without textbooks, sprinkling his lessons with his father’s sayings. Instead of “’diversifying markets,” it was “my father used to say we all need to learn to carry water on both shoulders.”

Everyone learned from Stanley Marcus, whether they cut their teeth at Neiman ’s or elsewhere. Terry Lundgren, Chairman and CEO of Federaed Merchandising and Federated Product Development, started his retail career at Bullocks in Beverly Hills. He was recruited by Neiman’s and named chairman and CEO of Neiman Marcus in 1990, long after Marcus had retired. As soon as he arrived in Dallas, he hoped to meet Mr. Stanley. One day in a restaurant, Lundgren caught sight of the famous retail legend. He introduced himself and made plans for a lunch that would turn into a regular monthly meeting at the downtown store.

’LWe were having trouble selling our ’bridge’ [less expensive] line of women’s clothes, and I had some ideas because 1 felt The Store needed to have both lines do well,” says Lundgren.

After a three-hour lunch, Mr. Stanley told Lundgren what his father had said about carrying water. That reinforced Lundgren’s ideas that Neiman Marcus could not survive by catering to only one piece of the market. He invited Mr. Stanley to come back and speak to 1,000 Neiman Marcus employees-just like he did in the old days.

“He spoke for45 minutes and I knew by the time he was through, next year we would exceed the sales and profit projections,” says Lundgren. “And we did.”

Gordon Segal, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Crate & Barrel, never worked al Neiman Marcus or stood under Mr. Stanley’s critical eye as a rising retail star. But he calls Stanley Marcus one of his role models and says Crate & Barrel stores are so successful because they are based on Mr. Stanley’s precepts.

“Every new store manager at C&B gets a copy of Mr, Stanley’s book. Minding The Store” says Segal. “In fact we have a stash of them. That book is the best resource in the world on specialty retail and managing customers.”

Patrick Esquerre had never heard of Stanley Marcus or Neiman Marcus when he moved to Dallas from France in the ’80s, and was introduced to him by a friend.

“He is one of the smartest men I ’ve ever known,” says Esquerre, chairman and founder of La Madeleine French Bakeries.

From the start of their meeting, Mr. Stanley offered Esquerre sound business advice for the bakery he wanted to open.

“Put it near SMU and it will be a winner,” advised Mr. Stanley.

Later, when he was negotiating a lease for the Mockingbird Lane location. Esquerre dropped Marcus’ name. Esquerre called Mr. Stanley and put him on the phone with the landlord. Within minutes, Patrick Esquerre had an affordable location for his first La Madeleine bakery.

“That’s what I call a can-opener,” says Esquerre. “Even now when I make decisions, I ask myself. ’What would Stanley Marcus do?’”

One reason why Stanley Marcus remains youthful and fascinating at age 92; He is still learning, doing and still more interested in what makes others tick than he is in himself or his aches and pains.

“He surrounds himself with vigorous people,” says publicist Jeanne Prejean, a former Dallas Morning News society editor and once a publicist for Neiman Marcus’s downtown store. “And when he wakes up in the morning he looks at his agenda, not in the mirror.”

Once Prejean’s husband sat behind Mr. Stanley on a flight from Los Angeles to Dallas, Stanley’s seat mate was actor/football player Merlin Olsen. Eavesdropping. Prejean’s spouse overheard Mr. Stanley ask the football player for his opinion on every conceivable subject. When Stanley stood up to stretch his legs, Olsen asked the stewardess who he was talking to.

“Stanley Marcus,” she said, “you know, Neiman Marcus.” Stanley was learning again, this time from a pro football player.

Stanley’s curiosity was Basic Retail 101.

“I learned early to ask questions and to work hard,” says Jane Trahey, a Stanley Marcus protégé from the 1940s. The Chicagoan worked for the Chicago Tribune and a store called Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company when she wrote letters seeking employment elsewhere. Stanley Marcus answered her letter and invited her to tea on his next visit to the Windy City.

’”I really didn’t know who he was, that he was famous,” says Trahey. “But he offered me a copy writing job.”

Trahey accepted with two conditions: put the deal in writing and pay her air fare back to Chicago if the job didn’t work out. She worked for Neiman’s for eight years, creating The Store’s first cookbook.

“I got $500 and two weeks off to put it together.” she says. “It sold thousands of copies. I learned to ask for royalties.”

And, as Mr. Stanley taught her, not to make the same mistake twice. Trahey left Neiman’s and ultimately started her own advertising agency where she created an enormously popular ad campaign called “Legends” for Blackglama furs.

The School of Stanley launched Dallas into global recognition long before the world pegged it as the city where Kennedy and J.R. were shot. It was a recognition that went far beyond Fifth Avenue in New York or the fashion centers of the world.

In 1983, Chuck Kehoe was somewhere in the middle of Russia. One frigid January day he drove out of St. Petersburg to two very remote palaces. This was years before detente and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, The Cold War was getting warmer, but Russia was still enemy territory. Kehoe was literally on the other side of the Reagenomics and Yuppie world, but he had them keenly in mind: He was buying furs for Neiman Marcus.

“The walls of the palace were covered in Meissen china, the likes of which I had never seen before.” says Kehoe. “I said something like. ’Why don’t we know about this?’”

A guard asked where he was from.

“The United Stales.” said Kehoe. “Texas.”

The guard looked at him, then smiled.

“Neiman Marcus?” asked the guard. “I know Stanley.”